Return to About Mormons home

Individuality

by Howard M. Bahr

It is LDS doctrine that every human being has an eternal identity, existing from the premortal state and continuing forever (Abr. 3:22-23). Moreover, all individuals are responsible for their own choices, and all will stand before the Lord to present an accounting of their lives at the Judgment Day (A of F 2; Moro. 10:27). This, however, does not mean that individuals are autonomous or alone. All individuals are spirit children of God the Father, who organized them into relationships in order to maximize their growth and happiness through loving and serving one another.

LDS teachings make clear that living the gospel of Jesus Christ means voluntarily submitting the self to the will of God. Joseph F. Smith, felt that it shows "a stronger characteristic of individuality" to bring the self into harmony with God than to be separate from him (JD 25:245). An individual must voluntarily obey God's will to achieve righteousness (John 7:16), and God's will requires service to others in one's family and community (Matt. 20:26-27). Paradoxically, "he that loseth his life for [Christ's] sake shall find it" (Matt. 10:39); and as David O. McKay stated, "A man's duties to himself and to his fellow men are indissolubly connected" (p. 289). The Church cannot force individuals to become one with God and others. That must be done "only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; by kindness" (D&C 121:41-43).

The ultimate objectives of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are as inclusive and extensive as can be imagined, both individually and collectively—namely, to attain eternal life for all individuals and eternal continuity for families and to maintain a supportive, unified community of Saints on earth who live the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The scale and profundity of these objectives are equal to the depth of commitment they require. Christ promises righteous men and women that they shall be joint-heirs with him, inheritors of "all that my Father hath" (D&C 84:33-39; Rom. 8:14-18). Having offered the riches of eternity, the Savior may require the faithful to voluntarily sacrifice all their earthly possessions, including life itself, in order "to produce the faith necessary unto life and salvation" (Lectures on Faith, Lecture 6, paragraph 7). Latter-day Saints express this principle in a beloved hymn: "I'll go where you want me to go, dear Lord,…I'll be what you want me to be" (Hymns, p. 270).

Salvation is both an individual and a collective matter. Individuals are punished for their own sins, but the personal choices that foster growth and exaltation necessarily involve other people. The Atonement of Jesus Christ is relational: "No man cometh unto the Father, but by me," the Savior said, and people demonstrate their love for him by keeping his commandments (John 14:6, 15). The baptismal covenant is both personal and social: it involves personal willingness to remember Christ always, and it encourages members to "bear one another's burdens" (Mosiah 18:8).

While the singular focus of the Church on achieving its ultimate objectives unifies its members in ways that contrast markedly with organizations having internally competing objectives, there are limits to the diversity in individual beliefs and practices that the Church can tolerate and still achieve its mission (see Orthodoxy, Heterodoxy, and Heresy). Neither Joseph Smith's oft-quoted statement that "I teach the people correct principles and they govern themselves" (JD 10:57-58) nor Lehi's insistence that people are free to choose liberty and eternal life or captivity and death (2 Ne. 2:26-27) means that the Church can ignore internal challenges to its integrity or principles (Matt. 18:17; 2 Thes. 3:14-15; D&C 42:24, 74-93). Severe cases of disruption and violation may be subjected to disciplinary procedures and may result in disfellowshipment or even excommunication.

Christ affirms great diversity and individuality in gospel service. Each person has abilities to perform Christlike service that others may not be able to perform. Jesus taught that personal spiritual gifts and talents are to be cultivated and shared: "the best gifts" are given "that all may be profited thereby" (D&C 46:8-12; see also Gifts of the Spirit).

Organizations may in a measure constrain behavior, and the Church has a constraining influence on individuals insofar as they choose to conform or fulfill the requirements for holding callings or a temple recommend. However, there is ample room for the expression of individuality and appreciation for those who may take a novel approach to the righteous fulfillment of their responsibilities. God counsels his children to use their gifts creatively and intelligently in his service: "It is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant" (D&C 58:26-28). Moreover, most Church constraints, such as the law of chastity or the directive to avoid addictive substances, are intended to free the individual for a happier life. Voluntarily following Jesus Christ is the ultimate liberty, and sin, the ultimate captivity (John 8:32; 2 Ne. 2:26-27).

Latter-day Saints are taught that they and all the rest of the human family are eternal children of a loving Heavenly Father. Their individuality is priceless and eternal. The recognition that the Church is enriched by a diversity of individual endowments, experiences, and interests always has been fundamental to the LDS faith. The concluding sentence of the Articles of Faith celebrates the diverse individual paths that are part of the righteous life: "If there is anything virtuous, lovely, or of good report or praiseworthy, we seek after these things."

(See also Socialization; Unity; Values, Transmission of; Basic Belisfs home page; Doctrines of the Gospel home page)

Bibliography

Brown, Victor, Jr. "Differences." Ensign 8 (July 1978):8-11.

Dahl, Larry E., and Charles D. Tate, Jr., eds. The Lectures on Faith in Historical Perspective. Provo, Utah, 1990.

Higbee, Kenneth. "On Doing Your Own Thing." New Era 5 (Apr. 1975):18-20.

McKay, David O. "Each Individual Must Work Out His Own Salvation." Instructor 96 (1961):289-90.

Packer, Boyd K. Teach Ye Diligently. Salt Lake City, 1975.

Talmage, James E. "Practical Religion." AF, chap. 24.

Encyclopedia of Mormonism

Copyright 1992 by Macmillan Publishing Company

All About Mormons